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The Case for Tim Pawlenty

No potential vice presidential pick -- with the exception of Hillary Rodham Clinton -- has received as much attention over the last few months as Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

VP Watch

Pawlenty is widely assumed to be favorite pick of presumptive GOP nominee John McCain and has held down the top spot in The Fix's Veepstakes Line since we began ranking the potential choices. It is only likely to get worse (or, if you're Pawlenty, better) over the next 24 hours as McCain's trip to Minnesota is sure to stoke the rumor mill.

While conventional wisdom seems to have hardened around the "Pawlenty as frontrunner" meme, the truth of the matter is that few in the chattering class have any real sense of the man -- where he comes from, what he stands for and why he has vaulted into such an exalted position in the Veepstakes.

Today and tomorrow we will take a close look at Pawlenty. Here is the case for why McCain should pick him; tomorrow, the case against.

Up From His Bootstraps

In a party long seen as controlled by affluent elites, Pawlenty's decidedly blue collar background puts an entirely different face on what it means to be a Republican.

Tim Pawlenty and John McCain
McCain, left, on stage in Mankato, Minn., with Tim Pawlenty, center, during the latter's 2006 campaign for reelection. (AP File Photo)

Pawlenty grew up in the working class environs of South St. Paul. He was a teenager when he lost his mother. His father was a truck driver. He was the first member of his family to graduate from college. He still plays ice hockey whenever he can. He caught a 17" walleye on opening day of fishing season this spring. His most oft-quoted line by the national press is his vow to make the GOP the party of "Sam's Club not just the country club."

That "regular guy" profile appeals to a party that finds itself increasingly ceding the middle class vote to Democrats -- an untenable position if Republicans hope to retain the White House this year or take back control of the House and Senate anytime soon.

"To me, he epitomizes where the party needs to go in terms of its communication," said former White House political director Sara Taylor. "He is focused on how these Washington policies effect real people."

Given the focus on whether Barack Obama can win over working class/blue collar voters in the fall, Pawlenty could well send a major message to this crucial bloc that they can find a home in the Republican Party.

"Pawlenty has a personal history that working families can relate to, and winning working class independents and Reagan Democrats has to be one of McCain's key goals," said one unaligned Republican strategist who considers himself friendly with several of the most oft-mentioned vice presidential candidates.

The Good Soldier

Pawlenty is nothing if not loyal to his party.

In 1998, Pawlenty was running for governor but stepped aside in favor of then-St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman (R) who was regarded as the party's best chance of taking back the post. Three years later, Pawlenty was actively weighing a race against Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) when Vice President Dick Cheney and White House political Svengali Karl Rove called to urge him to step aside in favor of -- you guessed it -- Coleman. He did, and decided instead to run for governor -- a three-way race he won by eight points. (Pawlenty was reelected by a far more narrow margin in 2006, besting Attorney General Mike Hatch 47 percent to 46 percent.)

For some, Pawlenty's willingness to repeatedly step aside at the behest of the party powers-that-be could be taken as a sign of weakness -- a willingness to play second fiddle that runs counter to the sort of profile a national politician needs.

Of course, the vice presidency is a unique political office -- extremely high ranking and yet, prior to Dick Cheney and Al Gore, largely ceremonial. A willingness to play second fiddle could well have been written into the vice presidential job description by the Founding Fathers.

Seen in that light, Pawlenty's willingness to shelve his own ambitions "for the good of the party" works in his favor. He waited his turn to run for statewide office and, if picked as the vice presidential nominee, would do the same in national office.

There would be little reason for McCain to be concerned that Pawlenty would pursue his own political agenda either on the campaign trail this fall or in the White House. It's hard to underestimate how important that calculation is when picking a vice president.

Bridging the Evangelical Gap

VIDEO | PostTalk's Feb. interview with Minn. Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Watch Now.

It's no secret that evangelical Christian voters never really came around to McCain during the primary season. Any number of candidates made a pitch for their support, but it eventually coalesced behind former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee -- an evangelical in his own right. Even after it was abundantly clear that McCain would be the GOP nominee, evangelical voters stuck by Huckabee -- pushing him into the teens and even 20s in some states where he wasn't even running an active political operation.

The lack of intensity among one of the pillars of the Republican base should be concerning to all GOPers heading into the fall, especially given the huge amount of excitement Obama is generating among the Democratic base.

Pawlenty could well provide a solution to the gap between McCain and evangelical voters without alienating moderates and independents. (Huckabee would almost surely help McCain bridge the evangelical gap too but lacks the appeal to the ideological middle.) Vin Weber, a former Republican member of Congress from Minnesota and now a major player in Washington GOP politics, explains that while Pawlenty has close ties to the evangelical community in his state and nationally but is "not a guy who wears [religion] on his sleeve."

The connection to evangelicals is largely through Pawlenty's wife, Mary. She is a graduate of Bethel University in Minnesota, which describes itself as teaching a "distinctly evangelical Christian philosophy of education." Mary Pawlenty is also a longtime member of the Wooddale Church and is a close friend of the church's pastorLeith Anderson. (Make sure to check out this profile of Mary Pawlenty from Bethel's alumni magazine that was written in 2000.)

Anderson is a powerful force in the evangelical community, having served as the past and current president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

"If [Pawlenty] were chosen it would reverberate with the 30 million members of those churches almost instantaneously and very publicly," said Weber.

Free of the Taint

Voters feel passionately that Washington is broken and new faces are needed to fix it. (Hence, at least in part, Obama's phenomenal rise.)

McCain and his team are well aware of the taint that Washington currently carries in voters' minds as well as the long history of senators coming up short in the presidential race. (No senator since John Kennedy in 1960 has been directly elected to the White House.)

It's no accident then that most of the leading lights in McCain's vice presidential search have almost no ties to the nation's capital. Pawlenty certainly fits this description, having spent his entire political career in his home state.

Pawlenty also has demonstrated during his time as governor a penchant for the sort of hands-on, nitty gritty approach to solving problems that tends to resonate with average voters. An example: Pawlenty not only declared a state of emergency in a handful of southeastern Minnesota counties ravaged by recent floods but quickly toured the areas to see the damage first hand.

Voters like doers, not talkers. And judging from his reaction to the recent flooding as well as the 2007 collapse of the I-35 bridge, Pawlenty intuitively understands that the best way to handle crises is to put yourself in the middle of them.

As always, this piece is meant to spark conversation, so feel free to agree, disagree, condemn or compliment in the comments section below. (Looking for past "case for/case against" pieces? You can find them in our new "veepstakes" category.)

Tomorrow: The case against Pawlenty.

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 19, 2008; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Veepstakes  
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